The conventional wisdom is that graduate students shouldn’t take time to write academic book reviews. There’s just not enough in it for them, the thinking goes.
Now granted, I am not a career adviser by trade, and I have no particular privileged insight into the academic hiring process. Nor would I deny the important credentialing functions of academic writing. But as a sociologist who has studied the publishing industry, I disagree with the dismissive attitude many show about book reviewing.
Book reviews should not, in my view, be understood as a matter of individual profit and/or loss. They are, rather, for the collective good; they are important voluntary inputs into the wider system of academic book publishing upon which the contemporary academic profession is symbiotically dependent.
How, then, should a Ph.D. student, or indeed an academic at any career stage, actually think about writing book reviews? I would suggest that you begin by thinking sociologically about who benefits:
Publishers. Book reviews are very important for publishers. Cash-strapped university presses do not have the money to aggressively market academic books themselves, so reviews have long been — and continue to be — one of the main ways that information about a new publication is disseminated to librarians and others with potential interest in the topic. (The exact proportion of institutional versus individual sales varies by press and subject area, but virtually all books are supported by a combination of the two.)
Obviously, vanishingly few ever get coverage in The New York Times, but even a review in a specialist, niche journal is welcome when sales for the average humanities monograph typically hover in the three-figure range anyway. And along with evidence of strong sales, positive reviews can be good for the careers of the editors who commissioned the books in question and even for presses themselves, should they be called upon to justify the value of a publishing program to university or corporate parents.
Authors. Reviews are also very important for the authors of the books in question being reviewed, for any amplification of their books’ visibility boasts their own scholarly reputations as well. Academics, particularly junior faculty, routinely list where their books have been reviewed on their C.V.s. The reason they do this is because book reviews in scholarly journals are esteem indicators; an editor decided the space and resources should be devoted to this book over that one, and the book review itself (hopefully) has nice things to say about the work. Reviews in journalistic outlets such as newspapers imply wider public interest and/or relevance for the research. Evidence of both esteem in one’s discipline and “impact” beyond it are important evidence to be considered in processes of tenure and promotion.
Readers. It ought to go without saying that book reviews are also for readers. In the case of academic books, however, they can be far more than mere publicity for publishers or recommendations to librarians. At their best, reviews contribute to the direction and diversity of scholarly debate by presenting a range of different views and voices with which to engage. For example, I personally love reading reviews of books I have already read myself; they broaden my perspective and help me to situate what I’ve read in previously unconsidered contexts. And for many, it is often the case that — given the enormous range of new publications in any discipline — a review of a book is all that they will ever have the time for. Journals such as Contemporary Sociology, which are dedicated solely to book reviews, therefore provide an invaluable service to readers by helping keep them current.
Reviewers. Finally, yes, book reviewers do indeed benefit from their own work… and not just because writing is intrinsically satisfying or, really, that was a book that needed reading for your own professional development regardless. No, in the end reviewers benefit because their inputs into the system help to sustain it, and what goes around comes around: that press which depends on review media for marketing purposes might someday be publishing your book. The colleagues whom your reviews support in the context of their own careers might someday be doing the same for you. And the continuous work of keeping the field apprised of its latest developments must necessarily be collective labor from which all stand to reap the benefit.
Although any disruption of these carefully calibrated relationships between author and publisher, writer and reader, could have unpleasant and unintended consequences for the academic profession, no one person refusing to write book reviews will cause it all to fall apart. Still, it probably comes as no surprise that many have an individualistic conception of book. This, in turn, has resulted in fewer pages in journals devoted to them (and more for the peer-reviewed articles that “count”), fewer scholars willing to take time out of their busy schedules to write them, and their collective value further reduced. This is, in my view, a creeping intellectual impoverishment. Nonetheless, new outlets that exploit opportunities in online digital media, continue to emerge and claim their share of the discursive space.
So, when you are trying to decide whether or not to write a book review, think first not of your C.V. but rather of your colleagues, and be safely assured that the effort is not wasted. Reviewing is an essential component of academic service work, and that is why you — yes, you! — should take the time on occasion to do it. Anything less would look unprofessional.
Casey Brienza is lecturer in publishing and digital media at City University London.
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